Friday, October 24, 2014

How to eat well in NYC

   Food is the most memorable part of any trip for me. I have wonderful beach memories from Hawai'i, but I have even better memories of slurping noodles and shave ice. The Hagia Sofia is Istanbul was awe-inspiring, but sipping coffee in back alleys was even better. The memories we associate with food trigger different senses and are more powerful than just remembering what we see. And the pressure is on when you visit New York, one of the great food cities on Earth. You don't want to come here and have a bad food experience. Rather than make a list of great restaurants (there's plenty of those already), I figured I would compile some tips and resources to help you find the best food. So let's start with some habits to avoid.

Quite a feast in #flushing. #chinesefood #queens #oystersauce #taiwanese #nyc #realnytours

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Broadway Alternatives - Sleep No More

   Much of theater in New York is easily divided into categories. Is your theater larger than 500 seats? Then it's a Broadway theater. Between 100 and 499 seats? Well, that's Off-Broadway. Smaller still is Off-Off-Broadway. There's lots of different styles of plays performed on these stages, from Shakespeare to Disney. But what if the theater doesn't have seats? What if the performers don't speak? What if the audience can move and observe whatever they like? There's no category for that. But it's called Sleep No More.
Photo courtesy of Sleep No More

Monday, September 15, 2014

Neighborhood Guides - Astoria, Queens

   There's a feeling to Astoria, a kind of nostalgic haze of old New York that hangs over the neighborhood. When you imagine growing up on the streets of New York the image is just like Astoria, filled with playgrounds, swimming pools, the smell of fresh pastries, and grandparents tending their front gardens. The life of the sidewalks is timeless, but the new residents of Astoria epitomize modern New York. Diverse immigrants from dozens of nations mix with long-time residents and newly arriving professionals. It's the perfect neighborhood for visitors to experience the best of everyday life in New York, and perfect for enjoying bars, restaurants, cafes, shops, parks, and the city's diversity.

Friday, August 22, 2014


   Artie Shaw was one of the most popular bandleaders of the Swing Jazz era. A succession of bands he led with his gliding clarinet produced massive hits in the late 30s and his radio audiences and record sales rivaled and sometimes surpassed the popularity of his rival, the great Benny Goodman. He was selling millions of records in 1938 and '39, touring to raucous crowds around the country. He led the most popular band in the nation. And then, he suddenly broke up the band, retreated to Mexico and went quiet.
   He would form another, smaller band shortly thereafter but the pattern of break-up and then diverting to a new direction would define Shaw's life and career. He defined the archetype of the reluctant star who disdains his success, spurns his fans, rejects commercial opportunities, pursues a unique artistic vision, constantly seeks new artistic ground, and ultimately gives it all up without a thought to his legacy or future career. It's no wonder that in a musical genre defined by good times and happy feet, his self-penned theme song would be a stark, droning, macabre number called "Nightmare."

Monday, July 21, 2014

Broadway Alternatives: The Bell House

   Few venues in the city are as eclectic as The Bell House. The venue stands in a former printing press building near the banks of Brooklyn's industrial waterway, the Gowanus Canal. The location might be uninspiring (unless fetid sewer water inspires you) but the ramshackle old industrial buildings bristle with creative energy. Up the hill in either direction might be the fine homes and well-to-do families of Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, but down in the valley it's more freewheeling. The Bell House anchors the neighborhood with some great entertainment for folks who aren't impressed by bright lights and expensive bottle service.
   In the front of the venue is a large and charming lounge. The old garage doors open wide onto the street allowing people to gather around outside on pleasant nights. Inside, sofas and lounge chairs allow everyone to hang out before the shows start. It's a striking thing about the best venues in the city that they all have comfortable places to hang out separate from the venue. It helps when the front bar is a simple neighborhood place that you'd want to hang out.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The 9/11 Memorial is now truly open

  The President and other dignitaries were in New York yesterday to celebrate the opening of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. The museum is a crucial part of the overall World Trade Center project, especially as the years pass and the generation born after 9/11 grows older. It is always somewhat shocking to think of the high school sophomores and juniors on my tours and to realize that they don't remember 9/11. The museum will bring a visceral and personal reminder of the stories of New York in late 2001 and what people experienced on that day and in the months after for generations of young people. But up on the plaza above the museum, where the memorial's sunken pools mark the site of the Twin Towers, something even more important happened with no fanfare at all. A few small lines of fences were removed.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Pizza Wars: Juliana's, Grimaldi's, and the unanswerable question.

  "What is the best pizza in New York?" The question tantalizes the lips of locals and visitors in New York City alike. The siren call of melting cheese, fresh basil, charred dough, and tangy tomato sauce beckons all who walk the streets of here. A slice of pizza is the food most associated with New York City. And it should be. After all, it was an Italian immigrant to New York named Gennaro Lombardi who received the license to operate the country's first pizzeria in 1905 at 53 1/2 Spring Street, in what was then Little Italy and today is called NoLiTa (short for North of Little Italy). The clientele was mostly Napolean immigrants like Lombardi who appreciated the humble, flavorful tastes of home. Pizzas were especially appreciated on Fridays when the Catholic community shunned meat.  His restaurant survived until 1984 when an economic downturn shuttered the business. But it has since reopened though it moved to a new location on Spring Street. Today, Lombardi's is owned by John Brescio, who partnered with childhood friend Jerry Lombardi (grandson of Gennaro) to open the new location down the block from the original in 1994.

The original Lombardi's

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Broadway Alternatives - Brooklyn Night Bazaar

   When you tell your friends and family you are coming to New York, they will inevitably exclaim "You have to see a show on Broadway!" Broadway shows have the biggest stars, the best production values, and highest budgets of any theaters in America. But what if that style of high-gloss theater isn't your taste? What if the idea of hearing showtunes all night makes you want to pull off your ears? Will spending hundreds of dollars on theater tickets ruin your travel budget? Should you go anyways just because it's so iconic? Heck, no! There is entertainment in NYC to suit every taste and it is all world class, or at least a lot of fun. So what else can you do?

Brooklyn Night Bazaar
Corner of Banker Street and Norman Ave. Greenpoint, Brooklyn
G train to Nassau Ave.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Central Park in the Dark

   New Yorkers are scared of the dark. We are used to the bright lights and the big city. Not every block burns as bright as Times Square, but even quiet streets are bathed in the sickly orange glow of the city's sodium-vapor lamps. In the countryside, residents complain about light pollution and spend evenings gazing at the stars. But in the city, the darkness seems counter to the natural order of things. The shadows don't feel right. Perhaps that's why Central Park, even today can still feel unsettling after dark. Central Park is in fact extremely safe. Crime is nearly unheard of in the park today. So why should it still feel slightly menacing? Maybe it's just the stories from the 70s and 80s when the newspapers were awash with headlines of Central Park muggings and assaults. Maybe it's just the quiet hush of the park and the shadows dancing in the limbs of the grand trees. Whatever the reason, the park at night can still be quiet and eerie.
   It is that strange, unsettled feeling that is evoked in Charles Ives' Central Park in the Dark. Ives is one of the most independent and unique musicians on my list. He was born in Danbury, Connecticut, the son of a bandleader. Charles' father George would be the most important musical influence in his life. George was no ordinary bandleader, he experimented with polytonal composition, alternative tunings, and other musical experimentation. Charles even recalled an instance where his father had two bands play a different song on opposite sides of the town square and then march towards each other to create a blending of two unrelatred pieces. Charles would also play organ in churches around Connecticut, and in his days at Yale he would compose popular marches while at the same time being a standout athlete.

Ives in 1909, shortly after composing Central Park.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How to find a bathroom on the run

 As a tour guide, I have to remember a lot of information. I've got to know how deep the harbor is and what the filling in a cannoli is made with. I have to know crime rates and cool clubs. I have to be able to explain how to ride the subway, eat a slice of pizza like a local, and even what kind of sharks are in the East River (young kids have awesome questions). But there is one question that comes with an urgency no other query can equal. "Where is the nearest bathroom?"
   There are a critical lack of public restrooms in NYC, especially when walking around through the city all day. Residents have their homes and offices to use but tourists don't have those kind of options. The good news is that there usually are options, but you'll have to know where to look.
   First of all, there are a number of bad places to look for bathrooms. The worst place to look are shops. Most stores in NYC are small and have very little space for merchandise, let alone public toilets. Even large shops don't usually come with bathrooms. Fast food establishments aren't a great place to find bathrooms either. Many places like Subway don't have bathrooms. Others like McDonald's, Burger King, or Chipotle have facilites at some locations. But I have seen McDonald's that require paying 25 cents to open the lock. I also saw a Chipotle that required scanning your receipt to open the lock. Restaurants, of course, have bathrooms for patrons. But I find that most restaurants do a good job keeping non-patrons out of the dining room. They are reluctant to let anyone in who isn't paying. Most corner stores, or bodegas as they're often known in NYC, are also too small to have public restrooms.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The High Line Hotel

  Choosing a place to stay can be is often the most overwhelming choice facing visitors to New York City. There are almost 500 hotels in NYC listed on Tripadvisor. And while that provides a lot of options, it also means a confounding choice. Most of the hotels in the city are perfectly nice stays. Standards are high and clean rooms, good service, and convenient locations are the norm. Also normal is small rooms and high prices.
   So how to choose? The vast majority of the hotels are located in the Midtown business district, which is where many of the famous sights in New York are located. But, I prefer staying in one of the residential neighborhoods of the city. These are the districts of tree-lined streets filled with old brownstones, of high-end coffee bars and working class diners, of local pubs, and casual restaurants. These are the kind of places that make a stay special, where you can really feel the soul of New York. Where you can relax at the end of a day touring or get started in the morning. Plus the residential neighborhoods aren't overcrowded at rush hour and empty on late nights and weekends like Midtowns office blocks. So let me offer you one of my favorite places to stay outside of Midtown, in Chelsea at the High Line Hotel

Monday, March 3, 2014

Eating in Midtown: Hanbat

   Midtown is the center for most hotels and visitors in NYC. It's also the nation's largest business/commercial district. Unfortunately for most visitors staying in Midtown, the confluence of hotels and offices means that there aren't many of the casual, reliable, and affordable eateries nearby their hotels. So every now and then, I'll highlight a casual midtown eatery I enjoy. Today, Hanbat on W. 35th Street

Friday, February 28, 2014

Talking Union - RIP Pete Seeger

   There have been a slew of prominent entertainers who have passed away recently. Both Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Harold Ramis helped contribute to some of the best depictions of New York City on the silver screen. But for me, the saddest passing was that of the great folk musician Pete Seeger.

   Pete Seeger was a great American and one of the most pivotal and positive voices in American music from his birth in Manhattan in 1917 to his passing last January 94 years later. He was one of the most influential musicians of the 1960s folk movement because he had been there, in Greenwich Village, 20 years before, bringing to traditional music of America's farmers, workers, sailors, cowboys, hobos, African-Americans, and hosts of other forgotten groups to the masses for the first time. His career was one of principles and powerful songs. He fought for social justice. He fought for environmental justice. And while he was an optimist who believed in the power of songs and togetherness to change the world, his will and determination were as hard as steel.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Neighborhood Guides - Flatiron District/Gramercy

  If you were a visitor to New York at the end of the 19th Century, the area around 23rd Street and 5th Avenue would not need an introduction. Madison Square and the streets around it hummed with the goings-on of the brightest, sparkling members of the Gilded Age. Businessmen and high society families shopped at Constable's and Lord & Taylor. They ate at Delmonico's and were entertained at Madison Square Garden. By 1892, Moses King's Handbook of New York City described the "...resplendent lines of retail stores sweeping around Union and Madison Squares and along the intervening and branching streets, these are always fascinating, alluring, and irresistible. What cannot be found here, is not to be found in any shopping district anywhere."
   Fashion is fickle however, and the party kept moving uptown as the wealthy kept building mansions further up 5th Avenue and the shops relocated with them. By the end of World War I, all the department stores had moved and were replaced by warehouses and factories serving the growing ready-to-wear garment industry. The glitz had been replaced by grit. Over time the area became yet another anonymous region of dwindling manufacturing, ready for reinvention. Like other former manufacturing areas, buildings were reinvented as office space and loft apartments. But unlike many areas, the old businesses often remain. Publishers, booksellers, wholesalers and other old businesses mingle with tech companies, residents, shoppers, and nightlife. And at the neighborhood's center, the namesake Flatiron Building stands timeless.
   The Flatiron District isn't a secret, but I do find it's overlooked by visitors as a destination in its own right. Few parts of the city better exemplify a hodgepodge of old and new as well as the Flatiron District. So here are some of my favorite tidbits from the neighborhood.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

New York Reading List - Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

   Much like my playlist posts, I'll occasionally point you to a book of the city that's worth reading to get ready for a trip to New York. Even more than music, the writing of New York is impossible to consume and the variations in style and theme are unceasing. I'll highlight some great pieces of fiction and non-fiction. But I will start with some poetry. A great piece of writing can distill the entire essence of the city into a few short paragraphs. And so it is with my favorite poem: Crossing Brooklyn Ferry by Walt Whitman.
View of the Fulton Ferry build... Digital ID: 800691. New York Public Library
Engraving of Fulton Landing in 1857 by William J. Peirce from the NY Public Library 
   Whitman is the most significant poet in American history. His seminal work Leaves of Grass, of which Crossing Brooklyn Ferry is the opening poem, is the first great work of free verse poetry in the United States. And its themes of everyday life of working people and the beauty of the world of humans gave the work a democratic tone that flies in the face of poetry's sometimes elitist and ethereal nature. Whitman's importance is even greater in New York City.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Quiet City

   The musical history of New York City is filled with the stories of Jewish immigrants. The enormous influx of Eastern European Jews to New York through Ellis Island is one of the defining cultural migrations of the city. While the traditional music of Eastern Europe was important to those immigrants, it was their children that blazed new, uniquely American paths.
   Aaron Copland was born in the currently trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights. His parents were Lithuanian Jews who immigrated from Russia and owned a neighborhood department store on Washington Avenue. Copland discovered an interest in music as a child and by 15 had determined to become a composer.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Stompin' at the Savoy

   Chick Webb was one of the great swing drummers of the Jazz Age, and an improbable success story. Webb suffered from spinal tuberculosis from childhood and developed with a permanent hunchbacked stoop. But Webb was determined to follow his dream of being a musician. He bought a drum kit with his earnings as a newsboy and moved to New York in 1925, playing gigs all over town. But when he really came into his own was when his band was hired at the Savoy Ballroom in 1931. While he was not a trained musician and couldn't read sheet music, Webb and his band pounded out swing with force and abandon that perfectly suited the nonstop dance scene at the Savoy. Sadly, there's very little footage of Webb in action. This video shows a short clip about 40 seconds in of Webb's band swinging and the dancers tearing up the floor.

Extremely rare footage of Chick Webb and Gene Krupa from Tom Castagna on Vimeo.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Eating in Midtown: Kashkaval

   Midtown is the center for most hotels and visitors in NYC. It's also the nation's largest business/commercial district. Unfortunately for most visitors staying in Midtown, the confluence of hotels and offices means that there aren't many of the casual, reliable, and affordable eateries nearby their hotels. So every now and then, I'll highlight a casual midtown eatery I enjoy. Today, Kashkaval on 9th Ave.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Aire Ancient Baths in Tribeca, a high-class schvitz

   For the uninitiated, a schvitz isn't a dirty word or teenage slang. Like bagels and pickles, it's another New York delight brought to our city by Eastern European Jews. Schvitz is an old yiddish word for "sweat" and in its current definition a schvitz is a trip to a sauna or bathouse to get your sweat on.
   The City operated public baths in the late 19th and 20th century because tenements were often so insufficient in regards to sanitation and bathing. Many of the poor were forced to live in literal filth and disease was a constant problem. The baths were a way to combat the spread of disease and promote hygiene. Plus, many of the Russian and other Eastern European Jewish immigrants brought an appreciation of socializing in 110 degree steamboxes with them. While the City doesn't operate any public baths any more, there are venerable old standbys like the Russian and Turkish baths in the East Village.
   While the teeming and steaming low-cost schvitz has a lot of things going for it, sometimes you want to class things up. Enter Aire Ancient Baths at 88 Franklin Street.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Hotels outside Manhattan: How to avoid sky high hotel rates

  Travel to New York City is an expensive proposition. But travelers can often save money the same ways the locals do: skip expensive dinners and instead do great take-out or nice lunches, take subways and walk instead of taxis, check out local concerts and not Broadway shows, soak up free museums, and all other kinds of savings. But tourists and locals are all screwed by the high cost of housing. Savvy travelers are used to being able to rent apartments for their stays in big cities to help defray costs, but that practice is effectively illegal in New York City. And so visitors are stuck paying what one analyst found to be the 6th highest hotel rates in the world.
   So as a tourist, you can avoid high Manhattan prices the same way the rest of us do. Don't stay in Manhattan! The outer boroughs and even New Jersey have a booming hotel trade catering to travelers turned off by Manhattan's high prices. But not all outer borough hotels are created equal. Some are far away from the subway and require inconvenient shuttle rides just to reach the subway. Some are also seedy dirtbag hotels. So here's a list of where to stay and why.

View from the Holiday Inn-Long Island City

Awesome NYC visitor's promo.....from 1956!

   NYC has gotten very subtle with its tourism promotion. These days, you don't see print or TV ads for visiting the Big Apple. But in 1956, things were a little more straightforward. So enjoy this great video of New York in the 50s. Take a trip to....The Wonder City!!

h/t to Gothamist

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Jumpin' at the Woodside

   Count Basie was one of the great bandleaders in jazz history, whose long career and influential performances created a lasting musical legacy. He was born William Basie in the Jersey Shore community of Red Bank, where the theater in town currently bears his name. He grew up playing piano and sneaking into the local theater before heading to Harlem as a 16 year old in 1920. His early career included lots of motley gigs and jobs in Harlem where he learned stride piano from James P. Johnson, Willie "The Lion Smith, and Fats Waller. He also spent lots of time touring and eventually ended up in Kansas City in 1929 at the peak of the hot jazz movement in KC. After refining his skills as a bandleader he headed back to Harlem and took up residency at the Woodside Hotel on 142nd Street and 7th Ave. Basie and his band would practice and jam in the basement, and through these jam sessions their hit "Jumpin' at the Woodside" would emerge.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

How to ride the subway

   In a previous post, I described the basics of taking a taxi. But the truth is that over the course of a few days visiting NYC, using a taxi to get everywhere can become expensive very fast. Plus taxis can be hard to find on cold days, hot days, rainy days, and around shift changes and last call (4 AM and PM). So on the many occasions when taxis let you down, there is always the workhorse of New York City, the subway.
   The subway is the bloodstream of New York. Without it, the entire economy of the region would grind to a halt. In fact, we got a real life example after Hurricane Sandy when some workers attempted to get to their offices before the subway was back up and running and the resulting gridlock stretched for miles. And while there may be 500,000 taxi rides per day, on a recent October day there were almost 6 million subway rides. The subway is also a great equalizer. While the demographics of the subway to tend a little poorer than the city overall, every car still includes rich and poor, cultures from all over the world, students, retirees, tourists, workers, shoppers, and just about every kind of person imaginable. And besides, it's cheap.